7 Strategies to Unclutter Your Busy Calendar and Minimize Stress
If your family schedule looks a little too much like a battle plan, you're not alone. Use these strategies to find space.
When most of us hear the term “professional organizer,” we picture a decluttering maven who can alphabetize a pantry and color-code a closet in no time. But Sarah Giller Nelson, owner of Less Is More, an organizing service based in Miami and Chicago, says that lately, more and more parents are seeking her out for help organizing something arguably scarier than their chaotic basements: their crammed schedules.
“Parents’ calendars are packed with school activities, birthday parties, sports events—plus they’re juggling their own personal and professional duties and trying to keep track of their partner’s,” she says.
The first question Nelson asks these clients is, “Do you feel like you’re always busy but never get anything done?” If the answer is "yes" (it usually is), she explains, “It’s time to streamline, improve communication within the family, and carve out space to breathe and just enjoy one another.”
More reason to strive for a happy calendar: Some research shows that planning ahead may be a more effective stress reliever for some people than deep breathing and meditation. So instill some order in your schedule and maximize your time with these expert-vetted tips.
Sign up for a shared email address.
Globally, 269 billion emails were sent last year. It might have felt like all of them came from your kids’ school. Often, just one parent is on the receiving end, putting the onus on a single person to keep everyone on schedule.
For Becky and Daniel Diffen, parents of two elementary-school students in Austin, Texas, the situation was leading to schedule snafus and annoyances for both parents.
“Becky is a full-time attorney, and I stay home with the kids,” says Daniel. “When they were in preschool, I’d receive 90 percent of the emails and then forward things to Becky.” But updates and cancellations would come suddenly, challenging even the most avid email checker. In 2016, a last-minute change to the pre-K Mother’s Day program slipped through the cracks, forcing Becky to miss out.
Last year, a parenting message board gave Becky the idea to create a shared email address. “We use it for anything related to school, scouts, summer camp, and sports, plus party RSVPs,” she says. “Now we can both see everything, check our calendars, and chat quickly about whether we can make new events work.”
Daniel adds that a joint email account comes in handy when, say, one parent shows up with the kids for a soccer game only to find the field empty. Now either can log in and see that—surprise!—the field has been changed from 5A to 6B.
When your kids grow older, the shared account can be loaded onto their phones or laptops so you’re all in the loop.
Hold a Sunday family meeting.
This is prime time for coordinating the week ahead. Are there school events coming up? Does someone need to be home on Wednesday afternoon to let in the plumber? Parents who travel for work: If Party A is headed to Phoenix and Party B will be in Cleveland, who is watching the kids, and what’s the contingency plan if your flights are delayed?
“You can get the kids involved by asking if there are any activities they’d like to schedule,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. She adds that if you’re a planner but your partner semi-loathes it, include fun stuff, like date nights and vacations, so the whole meeting isn’t just, “Who’s driving Parker to the orthodontist?”–type logistics.
Add “Do nothing” to your schedule.
Calendar cluttered with hip-hop lessons, choir, ice hockey, and more? Put a big red X through one day—and watch your overscheduled children flourish.
“Downtime is critical for kids,” says Nakieta Lankster, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and child development specialist in Baltimore. “Playing in the backyard or going through old toys in the basement fosters creativity, and that’s kids’ language. Imaginary play helps them discover new things about themselves and teaches them to make their own fun. When we overdose them on structure, we push them away from that.”
Consider joining your kids to shoot hoops (no coaching allowed), play Monopoly, or just hang out and talk. Child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child, explains that injecting your calendar with this sort of “unproductive” family hangout time boosts kids’ self-esteem by “showing them that you love spending time with them and that they don’t need to perform to get your attention.”
Rosenfeld recommends scaling back just a smidgen to begin. “Doing this one night a week or twice a month is all you need to recapture your sanity while making a positive impact on your kids,” he says. “You’ll probably notice that you yell at your kids a little less and that you’re not in that crazy zone anymore.”
Another person who benefits from downtime: you. Strategize with your partner to carve out a slot of weekly whatever-you-want time for each of you to refill your own cup.
When it comes to kids’ activities, settle for good enough.
We all want the best for our kids, but must your toddler attend the five-star, Yelp-rated music class across town taught by a famed violinist, or would she have just as much fun with a tambourine and a college-student teacher at the community center down the street?
This might feel a little unnatural, but Lankster insists your children will be just fine. “Kids use their experiences in sports, the arts, and other after-school activities to help form their identity, but those activities don’t need to be top-tier to be enriching,” she says. “It’s about the experience itself, regardless of who is teaching it. It’s OK if your kid swims at the local high school; most kids won’t grow up to be Michael Phelps.”
Lankster says that if your child is showing signs of giftedness in a certain arena or is especially passionate about an activity, there’s nothing wrong with traveling farther to hone his or her talent or encourage the enthusiasm. Just don’t force it on your child. Dragging a kid with killer athletic skills across town to the “best” program will do nothing to facilitate growth “if he or she doesn’t like playing,” says Lankster, and it will only add to your scheduling issues.
Nelson, who often counsels time-crunched families spending two, three, or even four hours a day zigzagging across town from activity to activity, says if you’re hesitant to cancel a class altogether, cutting back a bit can work. She took this advice when her 11-year-old computer-wiz son asked about a coding enrichment program—30 minutes away, during afterschool rush hour. “Instead of that afterschool option, I signed him up for school days off, like teacher workdays,” she says.
Schedule time in your workday for home tasks.
- Get posterboard.
- Book doctor’s appointment
- Find a sloth costume for the play.
Working parents—especially those with desk jobs—often take care of these niggling little duties at random times throughout the day. But this piecemeal approach can increase your stress and derail your focus. Nelson recommends devoting one chunk of time to nailing them all—say, half an hour a day. During that slot, you’ll take off your work hat, dive into Amazon and Gmail, and get everything done at once.
Think you don’t have time? If you often find yourself scrolling through social media at work as a break, use that time to tackle family stuff instead. You’ll probably find it more satisfying than Twitter.
Trim your to-do list.
Starting your day with a packed to-do list (most people have 15 boxes to check at any given time) can give you a false sense of efficiency. Goal-setting expert E.J. Masicampo, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that a long list “can become a graveyard of things you’ll never actually do.” In fact, data recently collected by the software company I Done This revealed that 41 percent of to-do items are never completed.
“For a list to work, you need to be specific and say when and how you’ll accomplish each item,” says Masicampo. “Buy new barstools” is destined to languish because it’s vague and entails multiple steps. “Ask Facebook moms group for barstool recs after kids are in bed” requires that you plan ahead and gives you something to commit to.
Productivity coach Mridu Parikh, owner of Life Is Organized in Nashville, suggests making a “gotta-do” list of three to five things that must be done before your head hits the pillow. Ask yourself, “What would make me feel really successful at the end of today?” and use that as your blueprint. Maybe “Sort spice drawer” can wait, but “Grab allergy meds” is a gotta-do.
Get things done in chunks.
If your issue is less about scheduling and more about efficiency, a timer might help.
In 2014, Larry Port, a father of two from Boca Raton, Florida, saw his then 9-year-old daughter struggling to complete her math homework—not because it was difficult but because she was procrastinating, delaying bedtime as a result. As CEO of a legal-software company, Rocket Matter, Port often powered through long workdays with the Pomodoro Technique, a time management strategy that involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and forcing yourself to work until it dings, then taking a brief break. (It’s named after the kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, or pomodoro in Italian.)
“Those 25-minute pomodoros keep me on track,” he says, “so I thought it might work to employ the technique with our children.”
Port brought his timer home, downsizing his daughter’s pomodoros from 25 minutes to 15 to boost the appeal. It worked. “The timer gave her a goal to beat and broke through the procrastination,” he says, and it has ultimately helped her stick to her bedtime schedule.
Parikh says this approach, also called “batching” or “time chunking,” helps you work with time instead of fighting it. The timer psychs you up, pushing you through your task. Use it to get your family out the door in the morning or propel dawdling kids through their bedtime routines. “The entire family can clean the kitchen in a single 25-minute pomodoro,” adds Parikh.
The strategy may also work for setting screen-time limits. “Shutting off Snapchat, texts, and Instagram in small chunks to work on chores or read is surprisingly doable for kids,” says Port. And his son, age 11, knows that every night, he gets one or two pomodoros of PlayStation time.